You know how it is, you wait all term for a new musical to open and finally one does. Two days before my exam. See what I sacrifice for you dear reader; who am I kidding? I needed a break and Legally Blonde the Musical was the perfect excuse.
The Savoy theatre places host to the show and is possibly one of the ugliest theatres in London, built in a tribute to Art Deco it is more a lesson in dodgy concrete and tired looking velvet curtains. I was hoping that the show would be good enough to make up for the eyesore it played in and luckily I was right and even the many crusty old critics around me agreed!
If you’ve seen the film of Legally Blonde, the general storyline is the same; Elle Woods, a sorority queen from Malibu strives to get into Harvard Law School in an attempt to win back her ex-boyfriend Warner Huntington III but instead finds herself fighting to fit in and be taken seriously. She is helped in her quest to become a lawyer by the dowdy but sweet Emmett and love-lorn Paulette. The play takes this storyline and bulks it out a bit, adding a back-story for Emmett and expanding Paulette’s love life. This makes for a much more satisfying book and well-rounded characterisations lifting the story from shallow and girly to smart and funny.
The movie really suits musicalisation, certain scenes were just screaming out to become large production numbers and luckily the creative team have chosen the right situations to receive this treatment. The Bend and Snap has naturally become a hip-hop inspired anthem with additional dance breaks and Elle’s discovery of a key witness’s perjury is now emphasised in “There Right There” (guess what that’s about).
Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamins’ score is catchy and captures the fun of the show without being superficial and the lyrics are very witty with a sense that they are in on the jokes too. Music wise, highlights for me were the ballad “Legally Blonde” which I must admit nearly made me cry and “So Much Better”, the act one finale that, in the hands of Sheridan Smith, gives Wicked’s “Defying Gravity” a run for its money. I must give a little shout out to O’Keefe’s orchestrations, full and brassy is how I like my shows and full and brassy is what he gave me.
Jerry Mitchell’s direction is fun and bouncy and makes great use of some brilliantly designed mechanised sets, including a dormhouse frontage and a very cleverly designed judge’s podium cum toilet suite! His choreography is vibrant and incredible intricate, a stand out being “Whipped into Shape”. This was a complex number involving some amazing jump rope (or skipping rope for us Brits) stunts and a strong performance by Aoife Mullholandow to the matter of the cast. I must admit that when first announced, I was incredibly sceptical- three TV personalities, two reality TV hopefuls and a popstar does not fill one with much hope. For some reason in England a musical cannot be successful without having a star name to entice Joe Public in. Why can’t a musical be sold on the merit of its book and songs!? Rant over. On the whole I was very impressed with the casting and should learn to be less sceptical. Sheridan Smith stole the show as Elle Woods, she was phenomenal and even better than Laura Bell Bundy on my well worn out cast recording. Her comic timing was perfect yet did not hamper any of the more serious moments and boy has that lady got a voice! I loved Alex Gaumond as Emmett; his high note and little dance at the end of “Chip on Your Shoulder” sent me into a frenzied moment of “awww, he’s so cute”. Another revelation for me was Peter Davison as Professor Callahan, who I’d never seen in any other role other than the fifth Doctor Who. “Blood in the Water”, a song I would normally skip on the album was well executed by Davison who even added a jazzy lilt to this patter song.
My cynical predispositions were not entirely unrealised as I felt Jill Halfpenny, although a fine actress, was totally miscast as Paulette. The part can be taken in two ways- sassy yet vulnerable or playing for laughs. Halfpenny didn’t do either and didn’t really have the belt to pull off Paulette’s showstopper “Ireland”. Duncan James, although he well suited the part and sings very well, just didn’t seem right in the cast- whether this was because he looks too old to be at Harvard or that James isn’t yet comfortable in the theatre surroundings is yet to be seen. It doesn’t help that he has one of the weakest songs in the show and little else to do yet has been the main feature of publicity campaigns.
Despite these few niggles I was really impressed with Legally Blonde, the cast were full of energy and genuinely appeared to be having a good time. The play stays faithful to the fabulous film yet adds a new dimension and the music is infectious without being grating.
The show’s unexpected draw was its heart. I truly did feel all warm inside by the end and this is a testament to the entire package- writers, production team and cast. Perhaps a winter opening was a bonus to entice freezing shoppers off the streets and into the theatre and I say good on them!
If you only have the opportunity to see one movie musical this season, make sure it is Legally Blonde, you’ll feel better for it. Plus it offers a lottery system where by turning up two hours before the show your name is entered into a lottery. If you are pulled out you can bag yourself some very cheap front row seats. Yay for cheapness!